"The truly great ones become less creators of art than conduits for the wild art that exists at large in the Universe."


That line is a joke. Literally. It's spoken by a character in a play of mine, an actress pretending to be an author. It usually gets a big laugh. My playwriting is an integral part of my spiritual practice, part of honoring creative freedom, as we say in the Principles of Unity.

I was backstage during a performance of that play last month, and I thought, What if it's true? What if I am a conduit for the wild art that exists at large in the Universe?

The idea is far from new. For thousands of years, many believed that art came not from the artist, but from an external source--a daemon, a genius, a muse, Divine Inspiration--that whispered it into the artist's inner ear and revealed it to their inner eye. The idea that art springs wholly from within the artist is, relatively speaking, a young perspective.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her intriguing TED talk on creative genius, talks about how that view can help protect an artist from both overweening ego and crippling self-criticism:

If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.

I wish I could get behind that sentiment, because Gilbert's right; it would take a lot of the pressure off. But I feel like it also demeans the amazing things artists do, the time and sweat and mess that goes into the creative process. Because even when artists aren't feeding into that outdated notion that art=suffering, when they're having a danged lot of fun and getting fulfillment out of their creative process, it's still work. To say that was handed to them by some outside spirit really, for me, belittles that work (I know folks will disagree. I'm just telling you how I feel). Plus, as a naturalist, the idea of external supernatural beings floating around handing out sculptures and poems sits poorly with me.

And yet...

Elizabeth Bear wrote this fantastic blog post, The Care And Feeding Of Greater Lily-Livered Speculative Fiction Writer. In it, she talks about how important it is for writers (and, I would argue, all artists) to shake the stereotype of artists as people who live in their heads all the time--to get out into the world and do things.

...imagine that world concretely. Imagine it with all your senses: there are more than five (or six for that matter). Imagine it with your sense of balance. Feel the rock turn under your heroine’s feet. Feel the grass clutch at your hero’s toes.

It’s easier to do this, of course, if you have a rich internal library of sensation–of chairs, as it were, or people, or grassy meadows–from which to draw. And it’s easiest to do that if you get out in the world and experience it.

I needed a lot of years to come to this realization for myself, but my writing is better when I spend time in the world, observing it, interacting with it and the lives that call it home, instead of always sitting in front of computer trying to pull believable worlds and characters and plots directly from my head. I know it's hard to see sometimes, when I live in early 21st-century Minnesota and my fiction is set in late 19th-century Washington, D.C., outside a generic apartment building in Anytown, USA, or on Mars. But some things transfer across time and space. Your breath catching the moment you realize you're in love. Your legs shaking after you've biked ten miles too far. Your skin warmed by the sun on the Summer Solstice (well, maybe that one's different on Mars). That's the sacred, beloved reality I want to put into my writing, no matter how unreal the setting.

So my spiritual practice of attention and engagement in the world feeds my spiritual practice of creating art. And while I don't believe that any external supernatural being gives me my art, I've come to realize that it doesn't come entirely from within me, either. It comes from the world--from knowing the world, engaging it, loving it. From seeing and honoring that art does exist at large in the universe--and that I am one of its conduits.